37. Life Raft

TV is like a life raft. It keeps you out of the deep.

A man wearing sagging, off-white underpants stands in front of a TV studio audience. As instructed by a fully-clothed man next to him, he climbs over a clear plastic tub filled with ice water, and, holding tightly onto the sides of the tub, slowly lowers himself into the freezing water, squealing, “ya ya ya ya ya” and “wa wa wa wa wa” while the audience members, instead of turning respectfully away and talking quietly among themselves, sit on the very edge of their seats and roar with laughter.

Thing about a life raft, though, sometimes you’ll hear about a fishermen being found after 14 weeks, floating in a raft in the middle of the ocean with his three dead buddies. And after he gets pulled by his belt over the side of some freighter or cruise ship, the guy goes and writes a memoir filled with all kinds of unpleasant details that wind up getting discussed on the evening news while we’re trying to eat our dinner.

The tub is emptied of the ice water and filled with water more temperate, which is good and makes the man in the saggy, soggy underpants smile, until a bucket of small electric eels is dumped into the bath and his smile turns into something that flickers between confusion and panic. Then, when he cannot name the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture during some sort of question phase in what would appear be a kind of game show, the trembling, nearly naked man is told he must now put his arm into the tub of eels. As this is not a typical, real-world consequence of not knowing the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, or any prefecture for that matter, the request clearly surprises the increasingly unenthusiastic contestant. His eyes go wide and he tries to run away. The audience titters as the show’s attendants drag him back to the tub, where he is told once again to put his arm into the water with its writhing tangle of electric eels. After a minute or so of holding his arm over the tub, lowering it to the very surface of the water, then pulling it away, then lowering it again, then pulling it away, the man finally plunges his arm into the tub, and the audience, for some reason, is surprised by the many electric shocks he receives. Again, he says, “ya ya ya ya ya” and “wa wa wa wa wa,”  which again is met by roars of laughter.

My point is this: life rafts and TV are a mixed bag.

Which reminds me, and I reach for the bag of mixed nuts with one hand and would grab the remote with the other, but I don’t have one. A remote, that is, not another hand, which is what people used to use instead of remotes in the olden days, back when my neighbor Nishihara-san bought this TV, I’m guessing shortly after World War II, when TVs were carved from the trunks of mighty oaks, fitted with dusty, olive green screens, and adorned with many gleaming nobs, dials, and wheels.

So I just go ahead and change the channel using my hand. From where I’m sitting, leaning against the wall, I am able to easily reach across the entire width of my apartment, to the TV against the opposite wall. I am able to do this so easily, in fact, that I grossly misjudge the distance to the TV and rap my knuckles against the hard surface of the bulging convex screen.

“Ouch!” I cry at exactly the same time as my next-door neighbor Nishihara-san cries, “Itai!” because in leaning forward I apparently pushed back on the “wall” between my apartment and Nishihara-san’s, a “wall” so thin I feel compelled to put quotes around it, and this once again pushes over a bookcase Nishihara-san insists on keeping against his side of that “wall,” quotes or no quotes, and this, once again, brings down on Nishihara-san’s head a great shower of books, many of them hardcover, and that’s what literature will get you.

I let loose a series of exclamations, each one immediately echoed by Nishihara-san from his side of the translucent membrane barely separating our two worlds, so it comes out, “Ouch! Itai! Dammit! Kuso! Ow Ita Ow Ita Ow Ita Ow Ita . . .” as if from some sort of weird, simultaneously translated Japanese parallel universe.

I reach out again, more cautiously this time, and grab hold of a massive wheel made of iron and mahogany to the right of the screen. I twist as hard as I can, but it doesn’t budge, and the studio audience begins to giggle. I put down my mixed nuts and grip with both hands this ancient tuner once used by our ancestors to navigate among the three or four channels their early forms of government allowed them to have. I pull myself up from the tatami, throw my shoulder against the mighty wheel and push with all my strength toward the next channel. It finally moves one notch over. There is a soft click, which is followed immediately by the enormous explosion of a surface to air missile that throws me back against the “wall,” and knocks the bookcase, which Nishihara-san had just righted, down on my neighbor for like the millionth time.

Nishihara-san curls into a trembling ball beneath the overturned bookcase, flashing back and reliving the horrors he experienced in The Philippines 50 years before, and I find myself staring straight into the jungle, at a slow motion blast and expanding cloud of bamboo shards. The camera cuts to Sylvester Stallone, who is shouting in both Japanese and English at the very same time, like one of those weird throat singers,* all the while shooting Vietnamese people and blowing up their bamboo buildings, and it strikes me how gratuitously unkind it is to do this to people whose country was occupied at different points in time by both Americans and Japanese. You know, to add insult to injury by using a weird throat singing technique to shout at them in the language of not just one of their former oppressors, but two, while killing and blowing them up. But I did miss the first part of the movie, so . . .

See, I was watching that guy in his underwear, which is a fairly common type of Japanese show, the basic template being one of pain, degradation, and general cruelty. It is only the details that vary, and sometimes even they don’t vary very much. The show that is on now, the one I twice knocked a bookcase onto my stubborn neighbor getting to, is Rambo. Or Rambo 2, or Son of Rambo, or I Was a Teenage Rambo. It’s hard to tell because he’s speaking in two languages at once, so I don’t know if he is meeting these people for the first time, or he has come back to kill them again, or their children, or what.

I try in vain to separate out and listen to just the Japanese, since that’s the reason I was watching TV in the first place, to immerse myself in the rich linguistic environment, to absorb the language through the same magical, mystical powers we observe in little babies, to avoid reading or concentrating on any one thing for more than three minutes. And watching a man being humiliated in his underwear, in theory, was how I was going to accomplish this. You know, in theory, but the show started to get predictable, began to rely less on language and more on eels. And also the guy in the underwear looked like this kid I went to high school with who was really smart, and so I was uncomfortable seeing him treated so disrespectfully, even though it wasn’t technically him, and that’s why I finally changed the channel.

And that’s how I wind up watching Rambo speak two languages at once, because the device Nishihara-san hooked up to the TV years ago to enable this ancient TV to receive the occasional bilingual broadcasts of foreign movies broke shortly after he gave me the TV set. Well, I say “gave,” but I guess technically, “put out for garbage collection” would be more accurate. Technically. Anyway, it broke. Whereas before you could choose the main language or the “sub-language” it was now stuck on both languages.

I would remove the device but that would require a Phillips head screwdriver, and the last time I tried to borrow one of those from Nishihara-san, he misunderstood and punched me in the stomach instead.

Rear, Rambo. Front, victim (archive by Kikuchi)

Sylvester Stallone yells something at a slightly built Vietnamese guy behind a desk. Because he yells it in both Japanese and English, it’s hard to make out, but said in unison like that, it sounds like he says, “Nothing drives like a Chevy.” And then he shoots the guy behind the desk about 20 times in the chest, and I hear Nishihara-san scream from under his bookcase behind a diaphanous “wall.”

*below, throat singer (note by Kikuchi)

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